Discrimination Law in Washington – At will to Discriminate?

The State of Washington has a declaration of civil rights that are known as the “law against discrimination.” RCW 49.60.010. The purpose of this chapter is stated, inter alia, “It is an exercise of the police power of the state for the protection of the public welfare, health, and peace of the people of this state, and in fulfillment of the provisions of the Constitution of this state concerning civil rights. The legislature hereby finds and declares that practices of discrimination against any of its inhabitants because of race, creed, color, national origin, families with children, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, age, honorably discharged veteran or military status, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability are a matter of state concern, that such discrimination threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of its inhabitants but menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic state.” Id. Clearly, ensuring a workplace is free from discrimination is both a private and public concern.

Generally speaking, the State of Washington is an at-will employment state. In the most basic form, at will employment means either the employer or employee can terminate the employment relationship for any reason, without many repercussions. However, employers should read the previous statement as any legitimate and lawful reason. As the legislature has made clear, discrimination will not be tolerated in the workplace. Discrimination of at will employees is just as illegitimate as any other form of employment.

So what does this mean for employees? Just because you are an at-will employee, does not mean you have forsaken all of your rights in the workplace. If your employer discriminates against you in the workplace, then you could have a cause of action, which could include damages or reinstatement of employment. However, if you have been discharged, the employee has the burden to prove that the discriminatory action played a “substantial factor” in their termination. This will require documentation and proof under all of the circumstances.

The good news for employees in the state of Washington is: the protections under state law are generally seen as being greater than those provided under federal law. The bad news is, you have to occupy a protected class, and that protected class must be the “substantial factor” in your termination to recover damages. So, just because you feel you have been treated unfairly, or unjustly, that does not, in and of itself, give you a cause of action under Washington law. As one can imagine, these claims are very fact specific, needing evaluation on a case-by-case basis.

If you are an employer, it might be clear to you how important it is to have proper policies in place to prevent workplace discrimination. It is the job of the employer to ensure the workplace is devoid of discrimination. Just because you have at will employees, does not mean you are at will to discriminate.

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